The playoffs are reserved for teams with actual wins, not moral victories, but fans can take solace in the fact the San Diego Chargers (4-5) fought back and turned what looked like was going to be an embarrassing home blowout into a respectable one-score loss at the hands of the Denver Broncos (8-1).
The first half was packed with groan-worthy moments for the defense, and the offense scored field goals while Peyton Manning and company scored touchdowns. The defense recovered in the second half, and the offense found the end zone, but the Broncos prevailed in the end, 28-20.
Philip Rivers did not light up the scoreboard with phenomenal numbers like fans have been accustomed to seeing this season. He finished completing 19 of 29 pass attempts for 218 yards and one touchdown. He also ran the ball five times for seven yards.
There were times he was able to hit receivers in perfect stride, but there were also times when it looked like Rivers tried to force balls into tight coverage. That risk-taking is worrisome to Chargers fans as the memories of 35 interceptions the past two seasons are still fresh.
Ryan Mathews scored a rushing touchdown! Ryan Mathews scored a rushing touchdown!
It is unfortunate such a feat is cause for celebration, but No. 24 running the ball for a score is about as common for San Diego as are rainy days.
Mathews ran hard, mostly going forward on every attempt (it is hard to gain yards when you are hit immediately after the handoff), finishing with 59 yards on 14 carries. He also caught one pass for two yards.
Danny Woodhead finished with 44 total yards (27 rushing, 17 receiving), his lowest output since the first game of the season when he only had two receptions for 16 yards. His six-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter was the first touchdown for the Chargers Sunday afternoon.
Ronnie Brown had his most productive rushing game of the year, gaining 36 yards on nine attempts.
Fullback Le’Ron McClain hurt his ankle in the second quarter and did not return.
It would have been a highlight-reel catch, but Vincent Brown has to catch that ball in the end zone in the second quarter. Yes, Kayvon Webster had his arm all over Brown, but that was a catchable ball and would have put San Diego in the lead, 10-7. Instead, the Bolts settled for a field goal. Brown finished with three catches for 35 yards.
Eddie Royal had two receptions for 36 yards, and Keenan Allen had four for 41 yards, but both provided big hits in the blocking game, especially Allen, who de-cleated a Denver defensive back on an Antonio Gates crossing route.
Antonio Gates once again was the Chargers’ leading receiver, grabbing four balls for 62 yards. It is the sixth time this year the tight end led the team in receptions and/or receiving yards. He did have a drop and he also gave up a sack.
Ladarius Green caught one pass for 25 yards, but he also was seen blocking downfield on run plays as well as trying to open up holes for receivers after the catch. Green is averaging 21.1 yards per reception this season. As per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Green has seven receptions on nine targets with zero drops. He should be considered for increased playing time/increased targets.
John Phillips was called for holding that negated a massive run by Mathews on the first drive of the game.
In a game where San Diego needed to perform well, having a big play wiped away to open the game was deflating.
Another game, another round of musical chairs for the offensive line.
Left tackle King Dunlap suffered a head and neck injury that could or could not be his third concussion of the year. That injury forced right tackle D.J. Fluker to left tackle, right guard Jeromey Clary to right tackle and brought banged-up Chad Rinehart (toe) off the bench and in at right guard.
Center Nick Hardwick, who was the only player to play every offensive snap for the Chargers this season coming into the game, suffered a stinger in the second half and had to leave the game. Rich Ohrnberger came off the bench to play center.
Head coach Mike McCoy again suited up seven offensive linemen, so when left guard Johnnie Troutman looked like he got injured in the second half, he had to play through the pain.
The shuffling of linemen had been admirable in the past, but it is starting to become a concern. Once Hardwick went down, the line really suffered. In truth, it was not as if Rivers had pristine protection while Hardwick was playing, but it got considerably worse with him on the sideline.
Troutman had arguably his worst game as a pro while Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton had one of his most productive games of the season.
Even with all of the woes along the line, the Chargers had 131 rushing yards on 35 carries for an average of 3.7 yards per carry, and that is including four quarterback sacks for 20 yards.
The defensive line actually did a very good job Sunday.
Corey Liuget, in particular, was all over the field. He had two QB hits and one QB hurry and often beat his blocker.
Kendall Reyes had three tackles and Cam Thomas added three more of his own.
Lawrence Guy was only in on nine snaps, but he had one tackle.
Sean Lissemore made the most of his time collecting two tackles while only playing 14 snaps.
The D-line did a much better job at closing running lanes and was serviceable in pass rush as well, but no one in this unit really stood out as particularly disruptive.
The old Biblical phrase is, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
That is how the linebacking corps must feel in San Diego.
Inside linebacker Donald Butler returned to action after missing the past five weeks with a groin injury, but outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hamstring) was on the sideline in street clothes.
Thomas Keiser played well, garnering a team-high four quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Rookie Tourek Williams had a sack/strip that set up San Diego’s first touchdown of the game. But he also had a team-high three missed tackles.
The pass coverage was bad, but part of that “bad” needs to be handed out to the secondary as well.
The Chargers defensive backfield is not the first nor will it be the last to get torched by Peyton Manning. The Denver offense is generally regarded as one of the best units in the NFL. There are too many weapons for a defense to cover.
Yet San Diego looked amazingly horrible, especially in the first half when Manning completed 17 of 22 attempts for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
The San Diego defense batted down only one pass attempt, and that was by rookie inside linebacker Manti Te’o.
The secondary did not look good, plain and simple. Some of that is because Peyton Manning is a Hall of Fame quarterback who makes lots of secondaries look bad. But this unit has been weak all season long.
Kicker Nick Novak improved on his kickoff depth, but he missed a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter that would have put the score at 14-9.
Punter Mike Scifres had four of his five punts go inside the 20-yard line.
Keenan Allen had three fair catches on punt returns, and all of Denver’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
Denver’s Trindon Holliday racked up 103 yards on four kickoff returns, averaging 25.8 yards per return.
It was the smart call to go for the fake punt to start the game, and head coach Mike McCoy had faith in the O-line and Ryan Mathews to actually run the ball at the goal line.
Controlling the time of possession works when you end the long drives in touchdowns and the defense forces the other team to punt or attempt field goals. The long, sustained drives are less effective when they end in three points and the opponent scores touchdowns in three plays.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano made the calls to hold Denver 28 points, the first time the Broncos failed to score more than 32 points this entire season. If you don’t count anyone with the last name Thomas, Denver only had 126 yards passing. The defense also held the Broncos to 84 yards rushing.
The defense had too many missed tackles, though, and Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas combined for 204 receiving yards on 10 catches and all four touchdowns.
One of these games McCoy will realize he needs to activate more offensive linemen. Of course, when that happens no lineman will get injured and every receiver will get hurt.